Bill Maher’s Slobbering Elon Musk Interview Was an Insult to Our Intelligence

Nothing could have been more conventional, more boring, and more embarrassing than the way Bill Maher repeatedly and ceaselessly kissed Elon Musk’s ass on his show Real Time.

Bill Maher interviews Elon Musk, Saturday, April 29, 2023. (Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube)

Bill Maher presents himself as someone who courageously offers viewers the unvarnished truth. The “About” page for his YouTube channel describes the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher as “irrepressible, opinionated, and of course, politically incorrect.” A sympathetic 2016 profile commended his authoritativeness in challenging the “feast of hypocrisy” that defines contemporary American life, going on to note his fearless willingness to call out “politicians, religious leaders, demagogues, pundits — some of them, notably, his own guests” with a trademark brand of humor “at once engaged and world-weary, and not infrequently infused with snark.”

Needless to say, this posture of searing irreverence seemed entirely absent during Maher’s roughly twenty-minute Saturday night sit-down with Twitter and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Network television isn’t generally where one goes to see grillings of the wealthy and powerful. Almost by definition, the format tends to take it as axiomatic that these are people worth celebrating or at least taking seriously. Even by the servile standards of cable news infotainment, however, Maher’s prolonged drooling over one of the richest men in the world must be seen to be believed.

Having introduced Musk as a “man who made electric cars a thing, and is currently working on perfecting reusable rockets, space travel, connecting the human brain directly to computers, connecting cities with electromagnetic bullet trains,” Maher opened by asking his guest “Did I get [right] the full order of things you do in a [single] day?” Evidently not satisfied that Musk had been sufficiently buttered up, he continued:

We do a show where we talk about what changes happen in the world. But we just talk. There’s a very few people who actually make change happen, [and] you are one of those people. . . . You’re a likable guy, and they attack you a lot, [but] you seem to laugh it off, which I think is fantastic. I love it that you have a sense of humor, because a guy as important as you, who makes changes, could use your powers for evil and not good.

Transcription doesn’t do justice to the sycophantic tone in which Maher conducted the conversation. Three minutes in, Musk had offered little more than a few nods and jocular quips, but his interviewer, somehow, still had some saliva left in the tank:

Let me get back to you being a genius. . . . I was a history major, and when you study history what you realize is that. . . you know there’s the Great Man Theory, and they talk about kings and princes and queens and presidents. [But] it’s really the people in tech who change the world. . . . Would you agree with that assessment?

The whole affair was rendered more absurd by the stilted and utterly conventional nature of Musk’s own answers, as could be seen in his characterization of the role of technology in the development of human societies.

Inevitably, things soon turned to Twitter, wokeness, cancel culture, and free speech, with the Tesla CEO offering up more cookie-cutter wisdom and his credulous interlocutor neglecting to offer even the friendliest challenge.

No one remotely familiar with Maher would have expected him to press on Musk’s lengthy record of union busting, brutal downsizing at Twitter, or his impressive roster of wrongheaded predictions and utopian promises that have failed to materialize. A version of Maher actually serious about living up to his own branding, however, might have thought to offer some very basic pushback on the question of free speech.

Just two days earlier, a report drawing on data from Harvard’s Lumen database found that Twitter’s compliance with government demands for censorship and surveillance has sharply risen during Musk’s tenure as CEO. Since purchasing the platform last year, he has regularly suspended accounts on a whim, including those of journalists reporting on his own activities. In January, the Intercept revealed that Twitter was censoring a BBC documentary critical of India’s far-right prime minister Narendra Modi in direct coordination with Indian state officials — a development repeated in the more recent suspension of over a hundred accounts belonging to politicians, activists, and journalists amid a police crackdown in Punjab.

It’s deeply sinister and dystopian stuff, but Real Time’s supposedly fearless host somehow couldn’t muster the skepticism to probe any of it, even gently, ending the interview like this:

Look, I mean, geniuses are going to be a little quirky sometimes. But your heart is always in the right place. You are trying to fix this world and I could talk to you forever. We can’t today. I’d love to get high with you. . . . I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you. I know you have a lot of choices, and places you can go.

From start to finish, the discussion was one giant insult to viewers’ intelligence. Face-to-face with one of the world’s richest and most controversial men, Maher failed to offer a whiff of criticism, ask a single non-deferential question, or even hint at the idea that this might be anything other than a big, sloppy wet kiss. What can you even say? Pathetic.